We all have those frustrating bad habits we desperately want to kick.
Whether it’s indulging in some late-night online shopping or biting your nails, our bad habits can make us feel downright rubbish. But despite being able to identify the flaws in our ways, knowing how bad they are for us and disliking the consequences of our actions, we continue. Why?
The answer, it seems, lies in our brain chemistry. Think about what happens in your mind when you engage in a bad habit. If you can’t recall your thoughts, it’s probably because not much happens when we turn to these habits throughout the day: we’re not actively thinking “let me engage in this bad habit”.
That’s because our bad habits are the product of our brain’s subconscious; psychological shortcuts that allow us to save energy and solve problems based on what we already know. Heuristics, as they are termed by psychologists, are mental shortcuts which allow our brains to make fact-based assumptions.
“These assumptions can influence our behaviour in ways that are below our conscious radar,” writes Bill Sullivan for Psychology Today. “The brain uses the patterns it has learned to run on automatic pilot whenever possible. This conserves the body’s resources, but it can result in the recurrence of bad habits. We do things without thinking. We form beliefs without evaluating evidence. We become biased and construct stereotypes. Bad habits and irrational decisions can stem from these automated heuristic pathways in the brain.”
So, if our bad habits are so deeply buried in our subconscious, what exactly can we do about them? The answer is surprisingly simple.
According to Sullivan, to break our bad habits, we need to constantly remind ourselves of these subconscious processes, and “get out of the backseat” when it comes to our daily decisions. By being more mindful of the little decisions we make on a daily basis, whether that’s what snack we’re going to eat or when we’re going to spend time on our phones, we can overthrow those automatic responses which have weaved their way into our brain.
“The trick is to be mindful of our behaviours, no matter how trivial they may seem,” explains Sullivan. “Ask yourself questions like: Why do I want that cookie? Why do I want to say such a cruel thing? I am yawning… why am I staying up to watch another episode?”
He continues: “You can nurture a new habit to live in the moment. Scrutinise your actions to reveal the choice before you. Contemplate every fork in the road. Engage your logic circuits instead of letting the mind act purely on subconscious assumptions… Frame the decision you need to make as a test. Will you pass it? Or will you fail?”
Making ourselves aware of the shortcuts our brain is taking can more generally help us to better understand our thoughts and opinions – and that’s never a bad thing.
It may seem obvious, but scrutinising your decisions and making active choices to avoid bad habits is an important step in overcoming these automatic ways of thinking. So next time you go to scroll through your phone for longer than you know is worth it, transform that passive action into a moment of reflection.
Forget the whole “new year, new me” thing – you’ve got everything you need to start kicking some of those bad habits right now. So why not get started?